OWI treatment court accepts 5 offenders
JANESVILLE Are Rock County's repeat drunken drivers getting sentences tough enough to convince them to choose treatment over a stint in jail?
It's a debate that's been raging in Rock County for years.
A handful of legal professionals think it would be best to let it rage a few more months until they can collect more information about the first group of participants in the county's new OWI court.
It might be too soon to tell what is motivating offenders to participate, Assistant Public Defender Cynthia Stoppel said Monday at a meeting of a subcommittee of the county's criminal justice coordinating council.
So far, the court has gotten 10 referrals, and three people are participating. Two more have been accepted and await formal approval, Stoppel said.
The others have been screened out, Stoppel said. One did not qualify because he or she was identified as a substance abuser as opposed to having an addiction, she said. One had legal issues that prevented participation. One lives outside Rock County, and one already was participating in a treatment program.
"OWI court is new," Stoppel said. "I'm not seeing that it's not getting referrals."
One useful tool for the program is the case manager who meets with offenders at their first court appearances, when they are the most likely to be open to treatment options, Stoppel said.
In its test phase, the program is aimed at third-offense intoxicated drivers. To participate, drivers must plead guilty to the third offense and agree to participate in 18 months of addiction treatment.
Some people—District Attorney David O'Leary is one—think the penalties for third offenses are not steep enough to encourage people to choose treatment. O'Leary said Wisconsin's weak intoxicated-driving laws are made weaker because of the perception that people sentenced to serve time in the Rock County Jail often get sent home on electronic monitoring bracelets.
"Alcoholics do not see that as a deterrent," O'Leary said.
O'Leary said he would prefer a system in which repeat-OWI offenders are jailed and earn the privilege of electronic monitoring.
Sheriff Robert Spoden defended the jail staff's use of the bracelets. Even if he didn't use them, most offenders get sentences that are shorter than the 18-month treatment program, he said. He doesn't think residents would be willing to pay for a jail expansion to house more repeat drunken drivers.
"I don't think you'd get the public to buy in," he said.
Members of the criminal justice process and opportunities subcommittee could talk about the issue at a meeting in the new year but did not set a date for the next meeting.